European sugar leaves environment with bitter taste

Posted on November, 22 2004

WWF releases a report on the environmental damage caused by sugar production as EU Agriculture Ministers meet to discuss EU sugar reform.
Brussels, Belgium – As EU Agriculture Ministers met to discuss reforming the European Union sugar sector, WWF released a report highlighting the environmental damage that can be caused by sugar production.

The report, Sugar and the Environment, shows that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other  crop due to habitat loss, intensive use of water for irrigation, heavy use of agro-chemicals, as well as discharge and runoff of polluted effluent associated with the industry.

An estimated 5–6 million hectares of cropland are lost per year throughout the world due to severe erosion and degradation caused by intensive sugar production. Three million tonnes of soil are lost per year from beet farms in the EU and 1.2 million tonnes are lost per year in Turkey alone.

In Andalucia, Spain, sugar beet irrigation has contributed to lower water levels in the Guadalquivir River, limiting the water reaching important wetlands during summer. The pollution of Danish coastal waters by sugar factory effluent has been linked to the occurrence of bacterial pathogens and an ulcer syndrome in cod. 
Outside Europe, sugar production is also responsible for significant environmental damage.

In Papua New Guinea, for example, soil fertility declined by about 40 per cent between 1979 and 1996 in cane cultivation areas. In Pakistan, sugar is considered one of the ‘thirsty’ crops responsible for reducing water flow to the Indus Delta, which supports the largest stretch of arid mangrove forest, while in Australia sugar cane farming has altered freshwater inflows and blanketed part of the Great Barrier Reef with sediment and pollutants. 

"The world has a growing appetite for sugar," said Elizabeth Guttenstein, WWF's European agriculture and rural development officer. 

"Industry, consumers, and policy makers must work together to make sure that in the future sugar is produced in ways that least harm the environment."
The report highlights a range of better management practices to prevent environmental damage, including: reduction of water demands through efficient irrigation systems; better control of chemical use; mulching in cane cultivation to increase soil fertility; reduction of water erosion; and soil acidification through cover-crops, terracing and strip planting, and more rational land use planning. 
The current EU sugar regime partly prevents the adoption of such practices because it supports over-production of sugar beet in Europe, allows excess production to be dumped on world markets, and severely restricts the amount of sugar imported from developing countries. 

According to WWF, EU sugar production should be reduced, dumping must be ended, and imports of sugar produced in an environmentally friendly way by the world’s poorest countries should be increased. The EU should also help least developed countries raise their environmental standards. 
• More than 145 million tonnes of sugar are produced per year in about 120 countries, with the annual consumption expanding each year by about two million tons. Some 20 million tonnes of sugar are produced in the EU alone. In Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Guadaloupe, Mauritius, and Reunion, sugarcane covers more than 50 per cent of the land. 

• The European budget for sugar subsidies amounts to €1.5 billion per year and is funded by taxpayers, but the vast majority of benefits go to a small number of sugar growers and processors in Europe. Consumers pay about €7.5 billion per year in higher prices due to the EU sugar regime. 

• WWF is working with Oxfam International to call for the reform of the EU sugar regime in order to ensure a more sustainable global sugar trade, which raises environmental standards and helps alleviate poverty. Research by Oxfam highlights the potential role of sugar in poverty alleviation and shows that some least developed countries could be competitive on the world market if they were given time and help to develop.  
For further information:
Adam Harrison, Rural Development Policy Officer
Tel: + 44-1887-820449
Claudia Delpero, Media Officer
WWF European Policy Office
Tel. +32-2-7400925
More than 145 million tonnes of sugar are produced per year in 120 countries.
© WWF / Paul Forster
Intensive use of water for irrigation is one of major concerns.
© WWF / Tanya Petersen